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A Mission of Cooperation

February 07, 1988|LEE DYE | Times Science Writer

When the Soviet Union launches two rockets toward Mars this summer, in the first salvo of what could become the most ambitious study of another planet ever undertaken, it will have special meaning for a handful of American scientists who have kept alive the practice of international cooperation in space even after their own government had backed away.

Five American scientists, including Fred Scarf of TRW and Bruce Murray of Caltech, have been working with the Soviets for some time now, lending their expertise as official investigators on the Soviet mission to Mars. While they have been acting in an ad hoc capacity, they will soon enjoy the full backing of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration under an international agreement signed last April by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze and Secretary of State George P. Shultz.

Five other U.S. scientists are to be picked for the team. In exchange, 10 Soviet scientists will be invited to take part in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars Observer mission, now slated for launch in 1992.

The official backing by NASA legitimizes a process that has been going on for several years in which American scientists, working with their counterparts in the Soviet Union, have struggled to bring about a new era of international cooperation in space exploration, bridging a period when NASA was not allowed to enter into agreements with the Soviets.

Kept Alive by Scientists

The individual scientists "kept it alive," according to Arden L. Albee, dean of the graduate school at Caltech and project scientist for the Mars Observer mission. Albee was in Moscow last December, working out the details that will finally win the full backing of the U.S. government for Americans who are already playing key roles in the Soviet Mars mission.

"Those five will be officially recognized as NASA-sponsored scientists, and we will chose five more for a total of 10," Albee said.

The agreement is more than a formality. It means American scientists will no longer have to work their way through the back alleys to reach the highway of international cooperation.

The sometimes difficult path that led eventually to the formal agreement tells much about the differences between the two systems, and the people who worked out the pact. According to Americans involved in the process, much of the credit should go to a Soviet scientist, Roald Sagdeev, head of the Space Research Institute in Moscow and a close ally of Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Sagdeev has long championed international cooperation, partly for pragmatic reasons. The success of the Soviet space program has earned his country considerable prestige in the international arena, and the expensive scientific components that are so essential to successful space exploration could further strain the Soviet Union's cash flow problems and possibly jeopardize some scientific endeavors.

Caltech's Murray, a former director of JPL and one of this nation's leading planetary scientists, said he met Sagdeev for the first time when they were both attending a scientific meeting in Europe in 1986. Murray said he was surprised when Sagdeev casually asked if he would like to take part in the Mars mission.

"He had a typewriter in Paris and he just typed up a letter" designating Murray as an "interdisciplinary scientist" on the Mars project, Murray said. A letter from Sagdeev is like manna from heaven for an American scientist in that it opens many doors that would otherwise be buried beneath Soviet bureaucracy, making it possible, for example, to get a visa and travel extensively in the Soviet Union.

"He (Sagdeev) just reaches out with his sword and knights you," Murray said.

The invitation from Sagdeev came at a time when "NASA wasn't speaking to Russia at all," he added.

That was a difficult period for American space scientists who had watched their own programs grind to a halt with the explosion of the Challenger.

But it did not stop men like TRW's Scarf, who has worked with Soviet scientists for more than a decade. Scarf is one of America's leading experts in the arcane field of space plasma physics--the effect of such things as the solar wind on gas and dust particles that make up the interplanetary medium.

Venus Probe Investigator

Scarf was one of the principal investigators on NASA's Pioneer Venus probe in 1978, studying the effect of the solar wind on the atmosphere of Venus. The Soviets also had a mission to Venus, and since planetary probes can only be launched during limited "windows," the American scientists soon found that their spacecraft had company.

"A week after we arrived, the Russians got there" with their own robotic spacecraft, Scarf said.

"We were making measurements and they were flying by," he added. "There was tremendous interest on both sides."

Scarf had a plasma wave experiment aboard Pioneer, and the Soviet probe was similarly equipped.

"They detected lightning on Venus, and two weeks later we saw the same thing," he said.

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